Magazine article The Christian Century

Environmental Eviction

Magazine article The Christian Century

Environmental Eviction

Article excerpt

LUIS BRITO walks briskly over the stony soil of a rural village near Guanajuato, Mexico. For 20 years Brito, a community development organizer and former Jesuit seminarian, has helped agricultural communities improve their living conditions. He impatiently dismisses the assumption that Mexican migrants are attracted northward by economic bright lights. It is less the pull of U.S. jobs, he insists, than the push of local environments, where depleted soils and declining aquifers often evict villagers from traditional homes. "The degraded ecology has expelled them," he says, accenting the verb expulsar.

The pattern witnessed by Luis Brito is being chronicled in villages across the globe. Eroded homelands have spawned a burgeoning class of migrants known as "environmental refugees." Thousands have fled in the wake of cataclysmic disasters such as earthquakes, floods and industrial accidents. Many others have left because of long-term deterioration of soil, forest and water.

Oxford University ecologist Norman Myers estimates that 25 million people worldwide have been uprooted for environmental causes, a number that exceeds the official total of 22 million refugees who have fled civil wars and persecution. Myers and UN observers predict a sharp rise in environmental refugees due to desertification and deforestation, and to the threat of a rise in sea level from global warming. "The total may well double by the year 2010, if not before, as increasing numbers of impoverished people press ever harder on overloaded environments," predict Myers and coauthor Jennifer Kent in Environmental Exodus, a 1995 study for the Climate Institute in Washington, D.C.

People "are both origin and victim" of environmental degradation, notes Essam El-Hinnawi, Cairo-based author of Environmental Refugees (1985), a United Nations Environmental Programme report, the first attempt to chart the global toll. Taking a term coined by development specialist Joan Martin-Brown, El-Hinnawi defines "environmental refugees" as those people forced to leave traditional habitat that has been rendered "temporarily or permanently unsuitable to support human life."

The phenomenon is not new; environmental decline has precipitated flight throughout history. It defined migration during the Irish potato blight of the 19th century and the Dustbowl of the 1930s. But the current scale of flight appears to be unprecedented. "Environmental refugees could become one of the foremost human crises of our times," warns Myers.

According to Myers and UN reports, the primary exodus has taken place from portions of Africa's Sahel, India, China, Central America and the Horn of Africa. These observers hasten to add that environmental breakdown rarely acts as the sole catalyst: poverty, repressive politics and inequitable land tenure often combine in a complex set of pincers to trigger migration.

With increasing frequency, however, people are being uprooted by the depletion of three natural resources: water, soil and forests.

The pumping of water for large agricultural farms has caused the aquifer under Luis Brito's communities to drop 12 feet a year and left wells dry. In Latin America's rural areas only half the inhabitants enjoy clean water; worldwide, 1 billion people in developing countries lack safe drinking water. The consequence of inadequate water and sanitation is a stunning casualty toll--30,000 deaths a day and pathogens responsible for 75 percent of the world's disease.

Since 1945 a tenth of the world's fertile soil--an area equal to China and India combined--has suffered significant soil degradation from overgrazing, drought and slash-and-burn agriculture, according to the World Resources Institute. Loss of soil fertility has damaged 25 percent of Central America's vegetated land, and researcher El-Hinnawi notes that "throughout the Third World, land degradation has been the main factor in the migration of subsistence farmers into the slums and shantytowns of major cities."

Accelerating deforestation accounts for the annual loss of 38 million acres of tropical woodland--an area the size of Michigan--due to demand by small farmers and large firms alike for firewood, agricultural clearing, road building and logging. Central America's forests have declined by two-thirds since 1950. In addition to an irretrievable loss of plant and animal species, deforestation exacerbates droughts and deprives soil of cover to hold nutrients. The UN's Food and Agriculture Organization predicts that by the year 2000, 2 billion people in developing countries could lack adequate fuel wood supplies.

A rise in sea level could displace great numbers of people. While the rate and magnitude of global warming remain uncertain, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, composed of 2,500 scientists from 55 countries, predicts that burning of fossil fuels will raise average surface/air temperatures three to eight degrees by the end of the 21st century. In that time a rise in sea level, coupled with increased coastal erosion and land subsidence, could inundate low-lying coastal areas that are inhabited by 160 million people, according to Myers and Kent in Environmental Exodus. The inhabitants in the deltas of Egypt and Bangladesh will be particularly vulnerable. These "people are so poor they can't afford to move elsewhere," points out Worldwatch Institute's Hal Kane, who concludes that climate change "could be the largest catalyst of migration ever."

Each year migration's ecological underpinnings are more starkly revealed. John Topping, president of the Climate Institute, responds to the latest estimates: "I knew the direction but I hadn't sensed the scale. It's bone-chilling when you see the implications for countries that are sliding off the edge." Jaydee Hanson of the United Methodists' Ministry of God's Creation says, " `Environmental refugee' is not alarmist; if people cannot live where the environment cannot support them, they will move."

Population growth may double the world's 5.8 billion people by the middle of the next century. Of the 90 million people added to the planet each year, 95 percent will be born in the developing world, many into regions of advanced ecological deterioration. Demographics can overcome even well-designed development projects: despite extensive efforts by African governments to expand water systems, for example, 40 million more Africans lacked safe drinking water in 1990 than in 1980. (North Americans who blame Third World birth rates for natural resource depletion should carry a mirror in one hand: with 4.5 percent of the globe's population, U.S. citizens use 20-25 percent of the world's resources annually. Ecologist William Rees points out that to support the world's present population at North American consumption standards "would require the equivalent of two more planet Earths.")

The estimated tally of 25 million environmental refugees only hints at the number of people who've not yet abandoned lands. What can be done to support those who would prefer not to cut traditional ties to place?

Hal Kane, the author of articles on migration for Worldwatch Institute, hopes that readers will "see many environmental problems as preventable. In contrast to intractable political tensions, you can often invest money in agricultural education, in community development loans, to prevent people from becoming refugees in the first place."

The UN and aid agencies are increasing their efforts to slow involuntary migration. They point to several promising broad-based schemes: a UN Convention to Combat Desertification; an international initiative to extend clean water to 730 million people between 1980 and 1990; intensive reforestation efforts by countries such as India, which now plants four times what it cuts; and the Convention on Climate Change, signed by 165 nations, which seeks to stabilize concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But at times the response must be small-scale: after all, a global exodus begins in one isolated village. At that stage, individual U.S. congregations are well positioned to answer requests, not only for emergency relief, but also for long-term aid to conserve natural resources.

U.S. churches and denominations have fostered humanitarian aid for more years than the World Bank and the U.S. Agency for International Development have been in existence. Church World Service and Catholic Relief Service balance disaster relief with development projects for soil conservation, reforestation and water supply. As Catholic Relief Service's Tom Remington notes, they recognize that "a dollar of development aid saves three dollars later in emergency aid."

At a time of escalating need abroad, many U.S. churches have turned insular. Most denominations report cutbacks in overseas mission giving. Congregations increasingly shift support to needs "on the doorstep," tipping a former balance between local and global attention. Noting the extent of environmental decline abroad, Dan Mattson, a former mission worker in Africa for the Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, says, "I don't think Americans have much conception just how serious things are becoming."

The burden of environmental restoration falls most heavily on indigenous communities, but there are numerous ways for U.S. churches to respond. Congregations that have reduced giving might reappraise overseas need, and those unlinked with overseas villages could collaborate on projects to provide clean water, fruit trees or soil conservation. As Myers says, "Faith communities have a very key role on the humanitarian level and in getting the word out in their congregations."

Close to home, parishioners can wrestle with their own role in global warming. The U.S. emits 22 percent of the world's annual output of carbon dioxide, the leading greenhouse gas. Recent study documents distributed by the National Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches "may make the church more cognizant of climate change than it has been and may deepen the level of debate," says Presbyterian minister and environmentalist Bill Gibson. Denominational resource papers on sustainability and social justice continue to prompt congregations to grapple with environmental issues "from an ethical and theological perspective," notes Shantilal Bhagat, a member of the Church of the Brethren's staff for eco-justice and rural concerns.

U.S. congregations have often remained aloof from the destruction of ecosystems; the urgency of human need has eclipsed the need for ecological restoration. But the numbers of environmental refugees attest to an inextricable link between the two. In an era of declining water tables and rising seas, the care of creation requires response from every church. Rarely has the environment more clearly worn a human face of need.

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